The Pope’s fear of ‘aggressive atheism’ has the wrong target – he should be afraid of choice itself
September 18, 2010
So, ‘aggressive atheists’ are spoiling all the Pope’s fun, the media are terrifying small girls in the name of paedophilia, and Mr Benedict doesn’t know that Hitler was a Roman Catholic. If you didn’t know better, you’d assume it was a Papacyphobe fest. If you did know better, you’d know that the reaction to his visit has all the signs of a Britain that’s always found excessive seriousness hilarious and delights in poking holes in speeches at the smallest slip of the tongue; I would like to believe Oscar Wilde would be proud of our reaction to the visit of the second-to-last pope.
But beneath the general comedy, there’s a serious charge to be answered:
“Today, the United Kingdom strives to be a modern and multicultural society. In this challenging enterprise, may it always maintain its respect for those traditional values and cultural expressions that more aggressive forms of secularism no longer value or even tolerate.”
One could attribute this to many things, from the closure of Catholic adoption agencies that would not comply with equal-rights legislation, or more flippantly the lack of tolerance shown by law enforcement agencies to priests who dabble in terrorism. However, what I would argue ‘cultural expressions’ should have referred to is not what you might call the ‘collision’ issues of abortion and homosexuality, but rather the displacement of cultural roles for the church by the secular state, and more broadly by civil society.
The power of the church – and any organised religion – is not derived from its interpretation of divine revelation or its ability to intercede with the deity, but rather its function as society’s gatekeeper. Up until 1837, marriage in England & Wales was extremely difficult without the approval of the Church. Birth certificates – or rather, registrations of baptism – were performed by the Church until the same year, when state birth certification was mandated. Until then, the legal rights associated with marriage and being a registered citizen were entirely in the hands of the Church. In practice, this implies that anyone known to be unChristian would have great difficulty in getting married (Gretna Green notwithstanding), and would have children with no official status. The moral requirements of Christianity were a necessity for those seeking to access legal rights. Regardless of the reality of your faith, church attendance and observation of morals would’ve been a practical necessity. This is reflected in the contemporary practice of young parents attending church in order to get their children into a faith school, irrespective of their actual beliefs.
Quite apart from legal rights, rejection of Christianity had strong social consequences – and not simply the obvious one of ostracisation. A significant portion of discourse relies on a shared cultural background in order to foster a sense of shared identity. It’s difficult to imagine the impact of access to multiple types of metaphor and symbolism on a society in which the key source of metaphor was the Bible; one can get a sense of how it must’ve been by visiting fundamentalist Christian forums. The power of Satan assumes a place that paedophilia has in the editorial narrative of tabloid newspapers. Shared totems and symbols have a vital place in human discourse; at the most obvious level these are in-jokes amongst groups of friends, but at the broader level they encompass shared modes of explanation and understanding, as well as signifiers of identity.
To take a pop-cultural example: we went to see the Scott Pilgrim movie last week, largely as a result of my girlfriend’s affection for Michael Sera. Its director, Edgar Wright, has a deep and abiding love of squeezing as many geek references into his work as possible; the result being nearly impenetrable to the uninformed. If you weren’t familiar with video games, you’d have little understanding why statistics referring to Scott’s power level keep flashing up on screen.
Now transfer that to a society in which the prime source of totems and metaphor is the Church and the Bible, and you’ll begin to see the impossibility of functioning in that society without a strong understanding of its cultural expressions. Those signifiers are controlled by the Church, and they imply certain types of morality.
The true threat to the Catholic Church comes not from homosexuality or atheism per se, but rather the proliferation of cultural expressions and social ceremonies that Europe has witnessed since the Enlightenment. People within my social circle have variously opted for Welcoming Ceremonies, Birth Days – and baptisms – as ways of introducing their children to the community. The moral authority the Church used to have was derived from their social & symbolic monopoly on Western thought and deed, and that has been shattered. We live in what to me is a glorious liberal society in which one is free to celebrate and mark the events of one’s life in whichever way one chooses. The Church can be a part of that; it is just reduced to one choice amongst many. It must compete in the marketplace of social choice if it wishes to regain its former authority – something that this Pope has failed to recognise.